The standout episode of the season is “Waiting for the Artist,” a mockumentary inspired by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre’s 2012 portrait of Marina Abramović that manages to be peculiarly emotional and somehow transcendent. Cate Blanchett is Izabella Barta, a Hungarian performance artist approaching a retrospective of her work and struggling to conceive of new ideas for her show. The episode is written by Meyers, and its brilliance lies in how tenderly both he and Blanchett approach Barta, a woman whose installations have included getting strangers to pass her toilet paper and pretending to be a cat. Performance art is so ripe for parody that it almost resists it. But Meyers, whether accidentally or not, finds some real meaning in Barta’s work, which attempts to expose the absurd suffering of the human condition.
In practice, this means watching an Oscar-winning actress in a fur coat lap milk from a bowl while shrieking “I am human!” over and over. Blanchett, in a long black wig and red-framed glasses, is uncannily akin to Abramović, and the directors Buono and Rhys Thomas perfectly imitate the artist’s key works, from the clothes she wears to the cavernous galleries she often performs in. Armisen plays Barta’s longtime lover and collaborator, Dimo (modeled after Abramović’s former partner Ulay), a feckless Italian artist whose core creative goal is “to deconstruct the idea of working,” and their relationship becomes the secondary pull of the story. Slyly, “Waiting for the Artist” critiques biopics that reduce female artists to their formative romantic relationships, while giving Blanchett’s Barta the triumphant final word.
If it’s not inconceivable that a series conceived, written, and directed entirely by men is so clear-eyed about the cost of putting complicated male genius on a pedestal, it’s at least pleasantly surprising. “Long Gone,” inspired by the 1988 Bruce Weber documentary Let’s Get Lost, mines the topic further, starring Armisen as a version of the jazz musician Chet Baker who’s indulged for his talent and enabled in his bad behavior (Natasha Lyonne makes a gorgeous cameo as the abandoned mother of the musician’s two children). And in “Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter From the Far Side,” Armisen plays Brad, the kind of goofy, self-absorbed documentarian who constructs an entire movie around his personal hero’s journey. Decked out in plaid, and callous in the most banal way imaginable, Brad mows through ethical lines on his mission to gratify his instincts as a fan.
Documentary Now! never makes that mistake. For one thing, it’s satire, and it’s hard to compromise people who are invented. But the series is also the strangest and most vital of tributes to an art form: ferociously attuned to detail, deeply enamored with its subject, and yet able to be critical. And it’s insightful, in ways that seem to transcend a comedy show in which Killam wears a wig that looks like a bombe glacée. Whether the bosses at IFC are content to keep letting Armisen, Hader, and Meyers go wild in the annals of documentary history for a small but heartfelt audience indefinitely is up to the network. But whatever it decides, it’s hard to think of a product that so deftly manipulates artistic obsession and fandom while exemplifying their possibilities.